During the decisive moments of life, when one’s entire future depends upon a word, or a gesture, twenty contradictory inspirations can traverse the mind in the time occupied by a flash of lightning.
On the sudden apparition of the young Marquis de Sairmeuse, Maurice d’Escorval’s first thought was this:
“How long has he been there? Has he been playing the spy? Has he been listening to us? What did he hear?”
His first impulse was to spring upon his enemy, to strike him in the face, and compel him to engage in a hand-to-hand struggle.
The thought of Anne-Marie checked him.
He reflected upon the possible, even probable results of a quarrel born of such circumstances. The combat which would ensue would cost this pure young girl her reputation. Martial would talk of it; and country people are pitiless. He saw this girl, whom he looked so devotedly upon, become the talk of the neighborhood; saw the finger of scorn pointed at her, and possessed sufficient self-control to master his anger. All these reflections had occupied only half a second.
Then, politely touching his hat, and stepping toward Martial:
“You are a stranger, Monsieur,” said he, in a voice which was frightfully altered, “and you have doubtless lost your way?” His words were ill-chosen, and defeated his prudent intentions. A curt “Mind your own business” would have been less wounding. He forgot that this word “stranger” was the most deadly insult that one could cast in the face of the former emigres, who had returned with the allied armies.
Still the young marquis did not change his insolently nonchalant attitude.
He touched the visor of his hunting cap with his finger, and replied:
“It is true—I have lost my way.”
Agitated as Marie-Anne was, she could not fail to understand that her presence was all that restrained the hatred of these two young men. Their attitude, the glance with which they measured each other, did not leave the shadow of a doubt on that score. If one was ready to spring upon the other, the other was on the alert, ready to defend himself.
The silence of nearly a moment which followed was as threatening as the profound calm which precedes the storm.
Martial was the first to break it.
“A peasant’s directions are not generally remarkable for their clearness,” he said, lightly; “and for more than an hour I have been seeking the house to which Monsieur Lacheneur has retired.”
“I am sent to him by the Duc de Sairmeuse, my father.”
Knowing what he did, Maurice supposed that these strangely rapacious individuals had some new demand to make.
“I thought,” said he, “that all relations between Monsieur Lacheneur and Monsieur de Sairmeuse were broken off last evening at the house of the abbe.”